4. Distribution and Money, the Frankfurt Book Fair and the PhotoBookMuseum, Cologne
Published: 10.10.2014
in the series Past, Present and Future of the Photo Book
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This may be a slightly boring entry, but I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why, in most cases, artists or photographers must supply the publisher with money to produce their book.

As I write this, I am sitting in Sobrado dos Monxes, next to one of the stranger and more beautiful churches near the Camino Real (or Camino de Santiago), only 60 km away from Santiago de Compostela, and far away from the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is currently running until Sunday, October 12.

Pilgrims arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Frankfurt Book Fair

In my early years in publishing, the Frankfurt Book Fair was the most exciting place I could imagine, but over the decades my fascination for it waned. It has been quite repetitive in recent years. The same people, the same themes, the same issues – but this is probably the case for any profession one has for longer than 10 years. The book fair used to be the place where publishers could sell books for up to 50–60% of their yearly turnover. I still remember how in the 1980s and 1990s, all the international booksellers came and placed huge orders for new books that they had not even seen physically. A lot of local German booksellers also came to place discounted “fair orders.” Today, in a time when everything can both be seen and ordered online, this function of the book fair is now obsolete. The fair is still important for selling and buying rights, and meeting all the international publishing people personally at least once a year. All the new and upcoming publishing trends can also be seen there – the fair has thus been increasingly dominated by everything related to digital publishing. A lot of publicity is generated during the fair as well, but as a publisher, you are no longer obliged to go there, nor do you risk your credibility and sales by not going. Last year (2013) was my final book fair after 31 years. There were many empty booths (meaning publishers who reserved a booth simply did not appear) and a lot of unused space behind the aisles in some of the halls. All of my friends whom I met at the fair agreed that there were significantly fewer professional visitors than in the years before. I actually did a small photo series on the empty booths, but do not have access to it right now. The book fair management did a good job of covering up the empty spaces, but I think they might soon have to consider shrinking the fair by a few halls – a sign of the times.

One should also mention that, of all the book fairs, Frankfurt’s is probably best organized and best publicized! It will survive the current changes, but it will be a smaller and different fair in the future.

I still recommend a visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair for those who are looking for a publisher for their book, simply because it is (on our planet) the best place to see as many and as diverse publishers as possible in a few days. It is important to see publishers’ own presentations and also the people behind the books, to get an idea of the spirit of a publishing house and determine whether it could be the right fit for one’s own book project.


Back to distribution and money…

My basic rule was always that, for a small publisher (1 to 5 people), a book that sells 1,000 copies can be profitable. For a medium-sized (5 to 10 people) publisher, it must already be 2,000 to 3,000 copies, and larger houses need to sell 5,000 to 10,000 copies to break even with a first print run.

If the print runs are smaller than the above, the books must be partly or completely funded by outside sources. There was a time when such funding was less necessary, as photo books used to sell quite well (in the years 1998 to 2007, roughly speaking). But today, funding is more necessary than in the last 30 years, as market conditions have become more challenging – to put it mildly.

Let me briefly outline the issue of distribution and the flow of money:

A publisher produces a book and puts it into his local home warehouse. All money is spent for texts, design, editing, production, possible rights, etc. on the day the book is final or at least within 60 to 90 days thereafter. Ideally, the whole marketing machinery is functioning well and the book was properly announced and advertised in the six months (or even earlier) prior to its release.

Review copies are being sent out now, first copies ship to local bookstores and European distribution partners (from a German point of view, this could mean a distributor in France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, or England, and sales reps in all other countries). Within a month or two, books are also shipped to overseas distributors in the USA, China and/or Japan, and Australia. As far as I am aware of, there is currently no sufficient distribution network in South America.

Each time there is an additional company between the final customer and the publisher, 7% to 15% of the final book price goes to the third party (another rule of thumb).

Sample calculation:

Customer – bookstore – distributor – warehouse – printer/publisher

100%            40–50%        15%                 5–8%             25–30% of the original price (or worse)

For ages, publishers have tried to take shortcuts and create a better scenario, but nothing has worked better than the above, at least since the years after the Second World War (until recently when Amazon entered the game and made online selling a possibility for publishers to reach customers directly).

The above simply explains that a publisher only gets 25% of the trade price (of which the production costs and all other costs of a publishing house must still be paid!) of a book when selling through the normal, old-fashioned distribution channels that have worked well, until recently. But this only makes sense for larger print runs and many titles a year, which can cover the overhead costs at the publisher’s head office along with all the sales and marketing costs.

So, selling 500 to 1000 copies of a book costing €40, a publisher might make as much as €5,000 to €10,000 – if all the printed copies are indeed sold (which is never really the case, unless a title becomes a success and is reprinted).

The more specialized not mainstream-oriented artistic photo books thus need “financial aid” in order to be published. Many photographers argue about the “cheap” publishers, who take their money and do nothing for their books (and there are such publishers, I must admit, but there are also a lot of honest and hard working, dedicated publishers, who simply need the money to survive). Here, the simple laws of calculation help to explain this situation. The alternative to making a book with and paying a publisher is to self-publish and pay possible collaborators directly – a model that has recently become a real alternative. Some photographers have successfully crowdfunded their books and sold a few hundred copies as well. This could be one way to get started and save up to 50% of the total costs.

So much for the boring issue today. Any questions?


The PhotoBookMuseum by Markus Schaden in Cologne

Officially, the PhotoBookMuseum should have already closed at the start of October, but due to its great success, it is now open until October 12th. I visited it during the opening days and liked the spirit of the place and the makers. (FOTOS)

It is not really a museum per se, but rather a place where one can see the current discussions and possibilities of conceiving and making photo books. A real museum should perhaps have more books visible, in presentations like the ones at the Rencontres in Arles, where books too valuable for public access were flipped through in projections. But overall, it is an enormous accomplishment by Markus Schaden and his team to have created this extraordinary space in Cologne and bring together so many exhibitions, events, and people between August 19 and now. This so called PhotoBookMuseum will go on to travel (depending on invitations and funding) internationally. If a reader of this blog has ideas, please contact Markus Schaden directly.

Last, but not least, here is a picture of our current location on our trip through Spain.

IMG_1902_komp (29131)

We have been following the northern coast of Spain and spent a night in “Las Medulas” in the mountains of the province of León on our way further north and west to Santiago.

IMG_1933_komp (29132)

I did not know this place until I made the Imperium Romanum book in 2103 with Alfred Seiland, who came here to document this largest gold mine of the Roman Empire. My humble photograph is nowhere near his great picture. You can actually see the great Imperium Romanum in Seiland’s exhibition in Luxemburg now at the Musée national d'histoire et d'art (National Museum of History and Art), running from October 10 until February 15, 2105.

5 comment(s)
Lorenzo Rocha
Posted 11.10.2014 at 17:28

The financial issues involved in the process of art and photography publishing indeed respond to pragmatic and empirical conditions, which vary in each context. With a steeply declining market for this sort of books, only very few publishers in Mexico take the risk to engage into photographic book projects nowadays. However, lately and up to date, there has been a very prolific formula for the production of such books. Private foundations, pertaining to powerful industries or banks, publish catalogs of their exhibitions and fund research projects resulting in high quality photography books. At least the three most prestigious publishing houses in Mexico: Turner, RM and DGE-Equilibrista, work mainly under commission of foundations, museums, universities and government offices. Only in few occasions these books are commercially distributed, they are given to out for free at the openings or sent to people for the promotion of the cultural foundation in turn, but they are nevertheless of great importance for the editorial industry.
When an artist or photographer provides the funding for their own book, in Mexico the money comes from grants provided to the artist by government programs or private foundations, by competition process. The publishers involved in these projects do not take any risk either, but keep their fee regardless if the project turns out successful or not. This is an unfair situation for the artists involved, because they normally do not get paid or get a share of the profits, so lately many artists have opted for self-publishing their projects, which sometimes has been profitable and convenient for them.
Book distribution in my country is a different case. We have access to almost any book distributed worldwide, due to our neighborhood to the United States. Instead the books produced domestically are not available for other countries because international distributors are generally not interested in what is produced here. The books I have published have a print run of 2000 copies and have been locally distributed. They are available in small quantities through our website and in some bookstores in the South America, US and Europe, but I have to ship them personally. It is in my experience a matter of relation between center and periphery.

Markus Hartmann
Posted 13.10.2014 at 12:26

Dear Lorenzo,

many thanks for your insightful comment.
What you say speaks from my recent experience and my "soul".
A serious publisher with a mission needs a big shoulder to lean on, i.e. a foundation or a sponsor who helps at least with providing the money for the advance financing of the book projects. I know more and more of such publishers who have a big architect or collector or foundation in the background and travelling through Portugal these days encounter many small exquisite publishers and bookstores who have such backgrounds. They are all small (and beautiful!) and publish the more serious books. I come from a publishing house and background that was pretty much the same (small but beautiful) that had grown (too much) over the last decades and currently simply has to decide whether to stay "big" and become a mainstream/lifestyle publishing house or shrink dramatically and stay "beautiful".

By the way: I visited the bookstore"ANTI" you recommended in Bilbao but unfortunately I was not yet accustomed to the Spanish Siesta hours, so they were closed. But from the display and shop I could see they fullfill what I think is a possible future for a bookstore - to act more like a gallery or exhibition space for ambitious, interesting books, selected by the owner/director of the store and aiming to a well informed, interested audience who is willing to support such a place by buying there rather than from the warehouses of the big online stores. I wish them well and hope they have or find a "big shoulder" to lean on, or enough customers who spent the money they need.

Lorenzo Rocha
Posted 13.10.2014 at 18:42

Dear Markus, I guess by now you are already in Portugal. Maybe you already did, but if you pass through Porto, don't miss the Fundação Serralves, built by my favorite living architect: Alvaro Siza.
In your comment you have addressed a topic that I think is crucial for our discussion: what you wisely describe as "big shoulder" and the link between "small" and "beautiful" publishing, opposed to "big" and "mainstream" books. Well, in my opinion when the artist/photographer manages to match an interesting project with a sensitive art foundation (like Serralves), then the book results a "big and beautiful" one :)

Andreas Langen
Posted 17.10.2014 at 16:02

Dear Markus,
almost simultaneously to your dialogue with Lorenzo, in which you write about the company you left because it turns from small & beautiful to big&lifestyle&mainstream, that very same publishing house spread the news that they are moving from a small swabian village to - have a guess - Berlin. While this seems to confirm you perfectly, their latest releases on photography do not at all. I just received a pile of wonderful brand new photo-books by HatjeCantz that are anything but lifestyle-orientated or mainstream-minded.

As an outsider to the business and to the company, I can´t tell how HatjeCantz manages to publish these works, and I do not doubt your and Lorenzo´s statements about the need of external support for ambitious photobooks at all. But here is a small insight to that excerpt of a publishing house that just decided to go big, and still does remarkable work:

Julian Röder´s "World Wide Order" reflects on the markets, business, policy and power. Röder is known for "The Summits", a series dating from 2001 to 2008, showing protests against the G8-Meetings. A part of these pictures, colorfully showing police and citizens fighting each other, is the beginning of "World Wide Oder". The following chapters are about military fairs, salesmen and hostesses on trade fairs, and about the european border protection. Röder takes a clearly critical position; the book itself is carefully produced, using stamp technique on the cover, different kinds of paper inside and print varnishing. Between the chapters there are essays on the political matters Röder´s pictures address. In short: inconvenient, contemporary, relevant.

Olaf Otto Becker uses a different strategy. For long years already, he creates Landscape photographs of seductive beauty - but all his works deal with the global threads of our destructive exploitation of natural resources. After a number of projects on disappearing glaciers, Becker has now turned to the extinction of forests all over the planet. "Reading the Landsacpe" is the current book, showing: 1. primary forest, 2. deforestation and 3. artificial woods in asian city centers. Looking at it, one can clearly see that mankind is sawing off the branch on which it is sitting.

Nadav Kander is a star in advertising and commercial photography. Besides that, he does works with political impact, as for example on Chinas´ biggest river, the Yangtze. For his new project called "Dust" he has photographed some of the russian-kazakh border region where the USSR used to test nuclear weapons. Hundreds of atomic bombs exploded there, using the local population as unknowing test-objects. Nadav turns the disaster into almost romantic compositions, sometimes quoting Caspar David Friedrich. As an aesthetic approach, this may not be very new, but the arenas are - the formally secret cities of Priozersk and Kurchatov have not been photographed before Google Earth discovered them.

Nadav Kander is easy to publish because he is a very big name in worldwide photography. With Peter Hebeeisen´s book „Battlefields“ one of the helpful aspects is the timing. For quite some years, Hebeeisen has travelled to Europe´s 20th century battlefields, but the publication just now fits to all the war-reminding events of 2014.

Last, but not least, there is Johanna Diehl´s „Borgo Romanitá Alleanza“ (which I don´t have as a book yet), studying the heritage of fascistic arcitecture in Italy. These pictures are less beautyful than Becker´s and Kadav´s landscapes, but far more disturbing - espacially for german spectators, who are used to a very efficient wipeout of the NS-heritage.

Short conclusion: in spite of all the difficulties in making ambitious, outstanding photobooks today, there is still a great deal of great works being published.
PS: Next week, I will attend the jury of the upcoming German Phootbook Award 2015. Though the winners are not announced before friday, 14th of november, I will try to give you an idea of this year´s volume after I´ve seen it.
Enjoy your trip!
Best, Andreas

Markus Hartmann
Posted 23.10.2014 at 19:22

Dear Andreas,

many thanks for your comment.
If you understand the rythm of publishing you know that this years books
were conceived last year already... so many of the titles you mention I have still been involved with made the contracts for some even and then left these books behind unborn. I am glad they are coming out now and hope they sell well to make the photographers and their work as popular and famous as possible.
I decided not to comment on the move of Hatje Cantz to Berlin in public.
But I can say that most of my favourite German language visual publishers are for some reason not based in Berlin (like Steidl, Kehrer, König, JRP, Scheidegger&Spiess and others more ....).

I am curious to see this years German Photobook Award Winners and as all the years before can not attend the award ceremony as I am at Paris Photo then!

See you in Stuttgart in any case!

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